"An elegant, eccentric novel of love, loneliness, and lepidoptera . . . Worthy company for work by other naturalist/novelists: Nabokov, Matthiessen, Kingsolver." ― Kirkus Reviews
In Magdalena Mountain , Robert Michael Pyle's first and long-awaited novel, the award-winning naturalist proves he is as at home in an imagined landscape as he is in the natural one. At the center of this story of majesty and high mountain magic are three MagdalenasMary, a woman whose uncertain journey opens the book; Magdalena Mountain, shrouded in mystery and menace; and the all-black Magdalena alpine butterfly, the most elusive of several rare and beautiful species found on the mountain.
And high in the Colorado Rocky Mountain wilderness, sharing the remote territory of the Erebia magdalena butterfly, lives the enigmatic Oberon, a reluctant de facto leader of the Grove, a diverse community of monks who share a devotion to nature. Converging in the same wilderness are October Carson, a beachcomber-wanderer in pursuit of the alpine butterflies he collects for museums; James Mead, a young graduate student intent upon learning the ecology of this seductive creature; and Mary Glanville, who also seeks the butterfly but can't remember why.
While the mystery surrounding Mary takes a menacing turn, their shared quest pulls them deeper into the high mountain wilderness, culminating in a harrowing encounter on the stony slopes of Magdalena Mountain.
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About the Author
ROBERT MICHAEL PYLE grew up and learned his butterflies in Colorado, where he fell in love with the Magdalena Alpine and its high-country habitat. He took his Ph.D. in butterfly ecology at Yale University, worked as a conservation biologist in Papua New Guinea, Oregon, and Cambridge, and has written full-time for many years. His twenty-two books include Wintergreen (John Burroughs Medal), Where Bigfoot Walks (Guggenheim Fellowship), and Sky Time in Gray's River (National Outdoor Book Award). He lives in rural southwest Washington State and still studies butterflies.
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Creatures, People, and Places
Magdalena Mountain is a real place, with a different name. The Magdalena Alpine ( Erebia magdalena ) and all the other animals and plants mentioned in these pages are real species, and I have endeavored to depict them as accurately as I can. The insect order Grylloblattodea (glacier crawlers) has been shifted south of the Red Desert biogeographical barrier in southern Wyoming, but it does co-occur with Erebia magdalena in Alberta. The particular butterfly I've named Erebia is an imaginary individual of this species, but nothing in his experience should be other than plausible,given what we know of his kind. The Theano Alpine's name has been changed to Erebia pawloskii in North America, but I've used the old name E. theano as it is what October Carson would have known. Certain other places and landforms are based on actual locations, but their names have been changed if I have made up much about them.
When historical figures appear under their own names, such as Evelyn Hutchinson, F. M. Brown, Enos Mills, and Vladimir Nabokov, I have tried to be true to them and their actual activities in the book's arena of action. Most players are either wholly de novo characters (including Prof. Griffin and Attalus) or composites loosely based on real people. Their names are different and I have felt no compulsion to treat their models accurately, only kindly.
Vladimir Nabokov's connections to the place and the butterfly and to a couple of the characters (or their inspirations) are absolutely truthful; only a detail or two have been adumbrated by way of fill-in flash. However, I was unaware of Nabokov's personal attachment to the vicinity of Magdalena Mountain, and of his poem-within-a-novel about Erebia magdalena , during all the earlier drafts of the book: I discovered these parallel details only while co-editing and annotating Nabokov's Butterflies: Unpublished and uncollected writings (Beacon Press, 2000) with Brian Boyd and Dmitri Nabokov: a truly stunning case of convergent evolution.
Should a landing craft from elsewhere settle onto Magdalena Mountain on an early autumn morning, the visitors might arrive at two conclusions. First, this world is a golden one; the denizens must have monochromatic vision. Second, this world is harsh; the citizens must be tough. Upon leaving, they would jot field notes like "inhospitable, but rather pretty in a raw sort of way" in their intergalactic log.
On both counts they would be partly right. The rockslide and its environs indeed glitter in September's dawn. On the fellfield, all the prostrate herbage has yellowed, except for certain low shrubs that have turned red, and they only lend depth to the overall gold. Sliding up the ridges, the tongues of aspenwood range, in their clones, from cinnamon to lemon, with orange-peel and persimmon in between. Even the granite, the substance of the scene, shines with a varied patina in the rising sun and morning frost, mica catching the sun's color, feldspar pink going to peach, gray feldspar to platinum.
So, golden. And rough. But not necessarily inhospitable. True enough, humanity seldom appears on the scene. But there are lives below the surface, many of them. Now, in the chilly gilt of oncoming autumn, they come out of the rocks to bask. They suck every calorie of warmth from the cool fire of the alpenglow. For soon enough, afternoon cloud will rise, promising something rougher yet: rocks in winter. For now, frost holds off. Then the sun passes beyond its perigee, and all the gold is gone. Most of the animals retreat beneath the stones, as a minute caterpillar creeps down deep into a withered tussock of grass.
The yellow Karmann Ghia left the road at forty-five. Its tires never scored the soft tissue of the tundra. It simply flew over the edge, into the mountain abyss.
A lookout marmot shrilled at the sight. A pair of pikas, young of the year, disappeared beneath their rockpile as the strange object passed overhead. Clearing the stony incline, the doomed auto glided over the rich mountain turf. Its shadow fell across a patch of alpine forget-me-nots, deepening their hue from sky to delft; then passed over a pink clump of moss campion. A black butterfly nectaring on the campion twitched at the momentary shading. Such a shift of light often signaled a coming storm, sending the alpine insects into hiding among the sod or stones. But this cloud passed quickly, so the sipping butterfly hunkered only briefly, then resumed its suck from the sweet-filled floret. A bigger black form took flight when the bright intruder entered its territory. The raven charged the big yellow bird to chase the interloper out of its airspace, succeeded, and resettled.
As the slope fell away toward the canyon below, more than keeping pace with the glide path of the Ghia, so fell the yellow missile. Sky whooshed aside to make room for it, otherwise there was no sound but for three shrieks on the alpine air: a nutcracker's alarm scream; the whine of the engine, gunned by the foot glued to the Ghia's floorboard; and a third, muffled by the glass, growing into a hopeless wail.
The thin alpine air parted before the plummeting car, smelling of green musk, of the great high lawn that is the Colorado mountain tundra. The perfumes of a hundred alpine wildflowers filled the grille of the Ghia. Soon the sweet mingled scents would be overcome by the rank fumes of oil and gasoline mixing with the terpenes of torn evergreens, as the grille split against pine and stone. But the rider smelled nothing.
The air took on a chill as the projectile left the sunny upper reaches, crossed over timberline, and entered the shade of the upper forest. Never once had it touched down since takeoff, nor could it fly much farther. Gravity never ran out, but the earth rushed up at last to meet it. All the elements of the alpine earthmineral soil, bare stone, grass, sedge, herb, shrub, and solid trunk of ancient limber pinemingled with the yellow metal when the Ghia went to ground. Soft parts met hard. Granite tore rubber. Branches smashed glass and pierced the cloth upholstery. The engine block escaped its mounts and flew a little farther before shattering against a boulder and coming to rest as shiny shrapnel in the streambed far below. The blow that tore the motor free, ending its long scream, ripped the driver's door from its hinges. That other shriek was loosed into the general clamor. Then nothing.
Almost nothing remained from this unplanned event to disturb the day up above, where it began. The nutcracker returned to its snag, the marmot to its post, the raven to its rock. The black butterfly nectared on, then flew. The forget-me-nots still flowered low against the ground. Not even the green verge of the road betrayed anything amiss. Only a black rubber streak in the roadway gave away the launching spot. Even the golden-mantled ground squirrel whose mad dash across the asphalt had started it all lay not dead on the shoulder, but basking on a boulder nearby in the late summer sun, unabashed by her close call.
Of the steaming yellow mass among the trees and rocks a thousand feet below, no one knew a thing. Bumblebees investigating the yellow spatter on the slope found battered, barren steel instead of woolly sunflowers. The Karmann Ghia's aberrant track would never be repeated. And for all the difference it made to the mountain, it might never have happened at all.